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 written by Alexandra Kurland

for Podcast Episode 18: A Conversation with Hannah Brannigan Part 1- Why Does Good Balance Matter?

I am balance obsessed.  Good balance emotional and physical sits at the heart of all of my training, so it is exciting always to find others who are equally obsessed by balance.  Hannah Brannigan definitely falls into that category.

At the start of Episode 18 I asked Hannah why she had become so fascinated with balance. 

Hannah’s answer was for her sport (competitive obedience) “she had developed a very strong interest in training very high precision behaviors.  The difference between first place and possibly not even scoring at all comes down to centimeters.  On any size dog that’s hard to train for.

She had observed individual dogs that seemed


"to come out of the box able to hit perfect symmetrical behaviors, were able to be straight, were able to maintain that, and didn’t seem to require a whole lot of external influence from the trainer to make that happen.  Those are not the sorts of dogs that I have in my house.

What could I do with the dogs that I currently have in my house.  What could I do with my dogs’ behavior that would bring them closer to that ideal?”

Hannah described her terrier Rugby.  His natural sit was extremely asymmetrical.  He was very much a higgledy-piggledy sort of dog.  To get to a perfect sit, Hannah realized she needed to begin by asking could he stand with his weight evenly balanced on all four legs, and the answer was no, he could not.

“I had to start with that balanced stand.  It is still a work in progress, but the closer he gets to being able to stand with his weight evenly distributed . . .  then when he does sit, he's much more likely to end up in a balanced, symmetrical sitting position.

When I wasn’t paying as much attention to those stationary elements, in motion he’s just throwing his body around.  I could click for the sits that ended up being straighter but it was not efficient.  It felt like a shotgun sort of approach.  I wasn’t getting clean loops.  He was just as likely to sit crooked in the other direction.  It didn’t feel like good training.

So what is the prerequisite for getting that action?  Getting that balanced stand is one of the first things I needed to have.  When I tried to selectively reinforce for the better sits, I was not seeing a lot of progress.  .  .  . Instead, I was just seeing - to the right, to the left, oh that one was straight, great.  But it wasn’t sticking.  I was definitely not in the right place .  .  .  .  I was not getting the precision of the behavior I was looking for.”

This led Hannah to task analysis, that is: what do I what the behavior to look like and what are the conditions under which I need this behavior to be performed?    

“One of the things that’s exciting to me is the deeper I get into this, the more I realize how much more improvement is actually accessible to us.  With the right training, every time I peel away a layer, I discover that this thing that I would have considered as part of the animal’s temperament or part of the structure can actually change through training. 


Structure frequently gets blamed for behavioral problems.  My little higgledy piggledy dog can stand with all four legs pointed in different directions.  He came with a roach back.  He’s a little low in the front, and his normal out of the box trot was like a little sewing machine.  His stride was very inefficient, very short, not fancy, not particularly well balanced, all on his forehand.  Having previously trained and competed with my Belgium shepherds who have much more elastic and fluent gaits, with a lot of natural elevation - having had that experience - I couldn’t live with the alternative.

Whatever we needed to do, whatever it was going to take, I was going to at least improve it.  I thought I could maybe get some improvement.  I did not expect how much improvement I could get.”

On facebook Hannah posted a short video of Rugby at a schooling show.  People commented that her terrier was heeling like a Belgium shepherd!

That’s a wow!

“He’s taking big steps.  He’s bringing his hind legs way up under his body. You can see him shift his weight back.  He's showing lots of flexion in his front legs, which again looking at him he doesn’t have.  But when he’s moving, he brings those front legs up.  He’s really flexing his hocks and stifles.  He’s rocking back.  On a screen shot I could place a line from his hips to his shoulders.  Instead of going downhill to the front, he actually has his shoulders elevated above his pelvis a little.  

He’s collected.

He looks so different that now people don’t believe me.  They think that I acquired this one particular terrier who has this unusual degree of flexion and angulation.”

Hannah has shared the link to the video with us.  You can watch Rugby at:  Be certain to watch the video all the way to the end to see some very fun heeling.

And if you want to learn more about Hannah’s training, visit her web site at:

And subscribe to her podcast: "Drinking from the Toilet".  You can find it on her web site and on iTunes and other podcast outlets.


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